In these challenging times, a growing number of women are unable to pay for period products, an often-unspoken struggle that leaves them embarrassed and ashamed. Periods don’t stop in a pandemic. In the 18 months since Covid brought the world to its knees, period poverty has increased sharply, with many women making the galling decision between buying sanitary products or putting food on the table. 

Of course, food always wins, leaving women forced to take off work each month, or to suffer the humiliation of using toilet paper, newspaper, rags, socks and even sawdust in the place of period products. 

Paying for the privilege of menstruating doesn’t come cheap. The average woman will spend more than $10,000 on period products over a lifetime. These supposed ‘luxury items’ – pads, tampons, panty liners and reusable products – are better described as a basic human right. 

A growing struggle

Dignity NZ, a not-for-profit organisation that provides free sanitary products to schools, youth and community groups, supports more than 40,000 menstruators a year. Demand for products has “skyrocketed” during the pandemic and these numbers are expected to keep rising, says Dignity general manager, Anika Speedy. They currently work with 97 community organisations that have requested period products – double the number they supported pre-Covid. 

Anika Speedy

Tough economic times are forcing more women and their families to make heartbreaking decisions every month, says Speedy. If there are several menstruating women in a household, the cost of sanitary products can be $30, $40, $50 a month, which many families simply don’t have. “You either put food on the table or you buy things like period products.” Recipients of Dignity’s products come from all sectors of society: a mum of four young children, a woman who has escaped a violent relationship, an overwhelmed first-time parent, and a father of three teen daughters whose wife recently passed away. “It impacts everybody in all parts of life.” 

A search for equity

The ultimate goal of Dignity is for all menstruators in New Zealand to have access to affordable and sustainable period products, says Speedy. When researching the issue of period poverty, Dignity’s co-founders Miranda Hitchings and Jacinta Gulasekharam found the fundamental issue women felt was the unfairness of the emotional and the financial burden of menstruating. “It’s a huge financial cost that 50% of the population bear and so it became apparent that the provision of period products was beyond period poverty, it was also an issue of period equity,” says Speedy. 

Dignity provides free period products through two initiatives: buy-one, give-one partnerships and gifting for the benefit of Kiwi workplaces and community organisations. Under the buy one, give one model, for each box of period products a business buys, Dignity matches the equivalent number of products and provides them to youth and community groups throughout New Zealand. The gifting initiative allows people to fund period products for those in need.

“A need and nobody was filling it”

Three and a half years ago Danika Revell co-founded The Period Place. Revell admits when they started out they didn’t know exactly what it was going to be, simply that there was a huge need for period product support that wasn’t being met. 

Danika Revell

Since then, the Auckland-based organisation has grown to become the country’s biggest period equity advocacy charity, supplying donated period products through sponsors to 100 impact partners around the country including marae, foodbanks, sports clubs, churches, and community organisations. 

Like other period support organisations, they have a waiting list of people who would love to receive their products and Covid has seen demand soar. Through partnerships 

with The Warehouse and Kimberly Clark they have been able to focus on large-scale deliveries. On Super Saturday alone, they donated 43,000 pads to people getting vaccinations. Along with pads and tampons, they also distribute period underwear, supplied by sponsors. 

The pandemic has been a turning point for Revell, who says she has reevaluated how they can best tackle period poverty. “I realised I couldn’t keep watching people drown at the bottom of the river while I was trying to stop them from being pushed in at the top. I had to do both.” That means supplying products to those who need them while also advocating for systemic change. 

Missing school because of menstruation

In 2019, researchers from four universities collaborated to survey more than 7,700 adolescents from 52 Auckland, Northland and Waikato schools. The Youth19 survey found 12% of Year 9 to 13 students who menstruated reported having difficulty accessing period products due to the cost. It also showed 8% of menstruating students had missed school because they didn’t have period products. Students in lower decile schools and less financially well-off communities were more affected – missing school more often – than their higher decile counterparts. 

The survey found Māori and Pasifika students were particularly vulnerable, with 19% of students from these communities reporting they had experienced period poverty – more than double that of Pākehā and European students. Of the Māori and Pasifika students who menstruated, almost 1 in 12 missed school once a month or more because of a lack of access to period products.

Hawke’s Bay entrepreneurs making a difference 

Hawke’s Bay woman Robyn McLean is the founder of Hello Cup, which she launched with her friend Mary Bond in 2017. The company sells high-quality, reusable menstrual cups that McLean says many women find more comfortable and convenient to use than traditional products. 

Mary Bond (left) and Robyn McLean

At $49 each, they are also more affordable in the long term compared to single use products, as each cup lasts several years. Made from medical plastic, the cups are hypoallergenic and fully recyclable, making them a zero-waste option.

McLean is passionate about reducing the cost barrier to period products. “The key to having sustainable products that then become more affordable in the long term is to make them quality and to make them last.” Through the company’s giving programme, Hello Kindness, the Hello Cup is distributed to people and organisations in need, along with education on how to effectively use and take care of the product. 

The cups have been hugely popular, and the award-winning company recently announced raising $2.4m in capital investment to expand overseas, starting with Australia and the US. Next year, the company plans to release a new product – the Hello Disc.

Vicki Scott

Another businesswoman making a difference is Vicki Scott, who has seen firsthand the confronting reality of period poverty. Growing up in Hastings, Scott developed a strong sense of justice and hard work ethic from her parents, which ultimately led to the decision to study law. 

Representing young people as a youth lawyer, she would often visit them at home and would always call first to ask what she could bring. The boys would usually want coke and chips. The girls asked for things like soap, toilet paper, tampons and pads. Many of them were among the 100,000 girls missing school each month when they got their periods. “If their basic needs were not being met, then how could they begin to properly consider the consequences or implications of their offending?” says Scott. 

As a lawyer and a mother, Scott is passionate about tackling period poverty and ensuring access to period products is never a barrier to opportunities for women. “Everyone deserves the right to attend school, go to work, go about their business while menstruating. And of course the mother in me can’t bear the thought of any girl or woman suffering the indignity, inequity and health issues that period poverty creates.”

The stories of indignity from women suffering period poverty are heartbreaking, she tells me. Women who choose, every month, to buy food for their children and make rent payments rather than buying pads or tampons for themselves. Young girls and women who tell her they use whatever materials are available to them for absorbing the blood flow, or simply avoid leaving the house. Women living rough on the streets, or who have fled abusive partners and have to deal with this indignity on top of everything else. 

Now based in Tauranga, Scott initially came up with the idea of a tampon donation program that provided products to vulnerable women in need at organisations such as shelters, missions, housing agencies, churches and community organisations. 

In 2018, she officially launched 

Crimson Organic. The company supplies 100% organic cotton tampons through a subscription service and a donation program for those wanting to give back. The impact has been immense for recipients. “One woman thanked me so beautifully for donating tampons to her, explaining her husband had been made redundant and she couldn’t afford the “luxury” of tampons, so she had resorted to using socks.” 

Scott is also ecstatic to be part of the Government’s Free Period Products in Schools Program, supplying organic cotton tampons to primary, intermediate and secondary schools.

Free products in schools

In 2020 the Government announced an initiative would provide free pads and tampons to all primary, intermediate and secondary schools, in a move to combat period poverty and improve the wellbeing of young people. Roll-out of the program started in June 2021. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the initiative aims to remove barriers to education and allow children to feel comfortable at school so they can engage in learning.

Other steps forward 

The Free Period Products in Schools program will ensure tens of thousands of young people have access to period products while studying, but it is only part of the solution. The program doesn’t include tertiary education or community organisations, leaving a huge number of women still in need. Period poverty goes “way beyond schools”, says Speedy.

There are other positive changes. A growing number of New Zealand companies are producing organic products and reusable options such as period proof underwear. More organisations are recognising the need to support their menstruating members by providing free products at work. 

It’s a step in the right direction, says Speedy, but period equality remains the real issue. “No one should miss out on opportunities because of their period.” 

Still a long way to go

Free period products should be available in every bathroom in New Zealand, as a fundamental human right, say advocates. Society accepts that the cost of toilet paper should be absorbed by whoever has installed a toilet but because not everyone menstruates the financial cost of this has fallen on the individual. The approach must change, says Revell.

There’s also still a lot of stigma and shame attached to periods. To move forward we need to normalise periods by talking about them. Revell advocates leaving period products out in the bathroom rather than hidden away and making them available for guests to use as needed. 

Educating both girls and boys about the menstrual cycle will equip them with the understanding of issues women can experience. “Educating boys is the key to removing stigma around periods,” says McLean. 

When women have free access to sanitary products, it has an incredible impact, says Revell. “You give a kid a pad or a tampon and they can go to school, they can finish their education, they can work, go to university. You’re giving them a choice and autonomy over their bodies.”

Period poverty can be completely removed. If we continue to take the right steps forward it no longer needs to be an issue for any woman in New Zealand. CHOICE

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